Sunday, 11 September 2011

Chameleon

The house was set in an old garden, among fruit trees, oaks and limes.  It was painted yellow, had a steep roof, and was surrounded by a high grey wall.  The trees round the edge of the garden grew over the wall and their branches spread over the road.  For many years past, two wide green benches had stood by the wall for the tired traveller to rest on.  Swallows nested in the house, and the crowns of the trees were a-twitter in the summer evenings.  The long wall, the trees and the benches were a source of cool and shade in the heat and dust of summer, and on bitter winter days they were at least an intimation of a human presence.

One summer day, the green benches disappeared.  Wooden scaffolding went up, topping the wall.  In the garden, the old trees were felled.  One could hear them splinter and crash, and hear the death-rustling of their branches as they hit the ground.  The wall came down.  And through the gaps in the wooden scaffolding, people could see the denuded garden of the Bernheims, the yellow house now exposed to the scorching heat, and they were as indignant as if the house, the wall and the trees had all been theirs.

This is not the collapse of an old social order, demolished by war and revolution.  It is the creation of a new one, built on new money; and its attendant arrogance: of a man who believes he has no obligations to the town he lives in.  He builds his own world, which he supports with his own labours.

A few months later, the old yellow gabled house was replaced by a gleaming new white one, which had a stone balcony shouldered by a plaster Atlas, a flat roof of southern inspiration, modish ornamentation between the windows, little cherubs’ heads and grimacing devils alternating along the frieze, and an imposing approach which might have graced a supreme court, a parliament or a university…

To use Joseph Roth’s phrase, Felix Bernheim first provoked his fellow men, then went about provoking nature.  He is an elemental force that changes the world around him.  Paul and Theodor lack their father’s vitality.  Their generation is weaker, and they are representatives of familial decline.  It is a theme that pervades Roth’s work: in his great The Radetzky March the grandfather rises from the peasantry; his son becomes a high counsellor of state, and the grandson sinks back into the land.  It is a metaphor for rise and fall of the Austro-Hungary Empire.  Here it is not so neat.  A different empire has fallen, and we do not know what will take its place.

Divided into two sections the first part of the novel details the weaknesses of the two brothers.  Theodor, stupid and lazy, and quite vicious, is on the fringes of the far right. He lives at home hating his mother.  She returns the compliment.  Paul is much better material.  He has all the talents and his teachers prophesise the most wonderful future for him.  So talented he could become a genius in any number of fields; he could be a writer, a philosopher, a celebrity diplomat; he could be anything that he wants to be.  But already we sense he will be none of these things: although extremely quick, picking up subjects almost without thought, he flits from interest to interest; he is easily bored and has no direction.  Obsessed by music, it is all consuming until he drops it for painting, which in turn gives way to the new mechanical machines… Nothing sticks.  It is all a kind of amusing game.  And we know, although he is still young, that he will not be a master; that he will not change or dominate the world around him.  Finally he takes over the family firm.  He is a banker.  Intelligent, attractive, and full of grace he is competent, but does not have a passion for the business; and is thus little good at it.  He wants to be rich and powerful, and he wants it to appear miraculously, like sun amongst the autumn trees, so he does not work to achieve this success. He is a dilettante, dissipating his energy amongst his cheap court, spending only a few hours a day at his office. Slowly the business declines.  It collapses in the novel’s second half. 

In the war he had a chance of greatness.  It was denied by accident of birth: anti-Semitism denies him his position in the cavalry.  Nevertheless, he has a good war: a man of fine manners and good breeding fits in easily amongst the officer class.  But it is a strange time too: he is both on the right and on the left.  An excellent officer by day, he is a respected dissident by night; for he has turned against the war, and is organising its early end.  But every paradise has its serpent.  It gives him a bite that will not heal: his weakness before a Cossack, who almost kills him.  Paul Bernheim has all the talents, but he is not quite strong enough…

In the novel’s second half the decline continues.  His father’s house sinks slowly into poverty: less rooms are used, the heating is rationed, and Theodor’s room is rented out to allow Frau Bernheim to survive.  His brother joins some extreme right group and is exiled, while Paul gradually loses all his money.

Among the handful of men who had stopped to watch the procession was Brandeis.  He stood next to a pissoir, a commodity which in Berlin is rarer than a library.  He smiled.  One could be forgiven for thinking that the reason he stood there wasn’t to indulge his own curiosity, but rather that of everyone else, as if it were his duty to show marchers and runners alike how to stand one’s ground; to show the unseeing how to look; the agitated how to be calm; the politicians how to think; the idealists how to question.  Yes, and however outlandish he appeared, and even though he kept his coat on, oblivious of the sun, there was still a connection between him and the aspiring treetops, and the breezy, balmy spring air.  Between the marchers and the spring there was none.  Even if one knew for a fact that they were marching into a wood, the impression they gave was rather that they were marching against it.

The marchers are Nazis, who have scared away most of the pedestrians.  They could not shift Nikolai Brandeis.  He is a man apart, and yet someone whose very being is in tune with the natural world.  Everything comes so easily and unconsciously to him.  His appearance in the books changes it profoundly.  Like the return of spring, which Roth describes so wonderfully, Brandeis offers new life to a declining order.  He has the uncanny ability to make vast amounts of money quite easily; very quickly he becomes a rich and powerful entrepreneur.  He is highly intelligent and very practical; he also has an individual point of view – he creates his own thoughts and perceptions, even over things he knows little about; like his acute musings over the plays his theatre performs.  He is unusual.  He has the uncanny ability to acquire everything so easily.  In many ways he is like Paul Bernheim, who he eventually saves through a society wedding.  But there is a difference of quality between them.  Paul has the gift of imitation, of fitting in, of being a good member of the establishment.  An excellent man to have around: he looks the part and confirms everyone in their prejudices  - that was why he so easily walked from the mess room to the radicals’ printing press during the war.  His education has turned him into a well-made social machine.  He can fit into any factory.  He is ideal for receptions and public events.  Roth sums him up perfectly:

But it appears that people of his type aren’t even permitted to endure a notional unhappiness.  It appears that the guardian angels that cluster round the Bernheims of this world see to it at all times that their charges are kept remote from extremes of pain and joy, that lives remain in temperate zones of mild winters and cool summers, where the greatest catastrophe is only a passing cloud.

The old guard respect Brandeis but they don’t like him: his money too new, his energy too excessive; his character too strange…  He doesn’t care, just like Paul’s father before him.  Both are larger than life characters, and both are a little inhuman; Brandeis does not share the sentimentality the rest of us find so natural.  He doesn’t care about wealth; and gives it all up at the end.  He is a bundle of life, a creative energy, that must live and be free.  Free!  This is what the others do not understand.  Money, we find out, in a moment of weakness, when he talks philosophically to his secretary, is dangerous for him, for it creates the institutions that limit his freedom: his business, he feels, has begun to imprison him; forcing him to follow its rules.  He must escape.  Because he is Brandeis he can and he does.

This one character transforms the book.  While there are elements of decline, there is also much rebirth: it is winter in Frau Bernheim’s house, but spring in the lives of Paul and Theodor, the latter now employed in one of Brandeis’ liberal newspapers.  No longer is the atmosphere one of nostalgic tragedy.  In its place there is satire and comedy; the social conventions are mocked, the pretensions of the social elite pricked and blown. The tone has changed.  Life sparkles again.

Herr Enders wasn’t aware that between the extremes of plutocracy and penury there was a third condition whose members could at least live in comfort.  Men who earned less than half a million a year were poor in his book.  And when he imagined poverty, as he sometimes did, he saw frightful things: syphilitic children, a tubercular wife, a bare mattress, and the family silver sold off.  ‘That’s how the middle class is living today,’ he would say.  He included in that bracket the managers of his own factories.  In his opinion the proletariat was taken care of.  First it had Socialism, secondly it had no requirements, and thirdly it had social security.

Accommodating himself to such prejudices, and with the backing of Brandeis, it is easy for Paul Bernheim to acquire Herr Ender’s niece…

What do two men talk about, if one makes chemical products, and the other has no interest but ‘getting on’?  Why, about art.  Paul Bernheim, as always, shone.  One would have thought he was a collector himself.

Later Enders cites Paul as an example of sound sense and stability, a key asset on Brandeis’ board: he represents tradition keeping an upstart in his place!  Life is about fitting in.  With a good education, and money somewhere in your background, you will have every opportunity available to be like everybody else.  Left or right it doesn’t matter: it is how amenable you are, that counts.

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